August 16, 2021 — The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate last week. The full text of the bill, posted on the website of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.
For those of us who favor local internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the States to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the Federal Communications Commission for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.
In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”
And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”
That alone is a major victory considering how much lobbying money was lavished on Congress by the cable and telco giants who for decades now have fought fiercely to prevent federal and state governments from making any funding available to cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, and local public agencies in order to protect themselves from competition.
Another good nugget contained in the bill is that after years of trying to prod the FCC into upgrading the minimum definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to something more in line with current needs, the bill requires ISPs who receive funding to provide speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.
And another Easter egg: a separate $2 billion pot of money will be added to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, which was first established with the Covid relief package administered by the NTIA and passed in December 2020. It also changes the timelines for that program, giving Tribes more time to develop solid plans for how to improve internet access.
A few other hidden gems
The bill allocates $2.75 billion to establish two NTIA administered programs to promote digital inclusion initiatives for communities that “lack the skills, technologies and support needed to take advantage of broadband connections.”
Broadband networks that use funds to build networks must offer at least one low-cost broadband service option for eligible subscribers.
The bill revives consumer broadband labels, originally established by the FCC in 2016. In 2017, as you may recall, the newly installed FCC chair Ajit Pai steered the agency to issue the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which not only overturned net neutrality rules, it also shelved the broadband nutrition label.
And, lastly, there’s one part of the bill that is good but with a huge caveat: it indefinitely extends the Emergency Broadband Benefit program by allocating $14.2 billion for a “sustainable” (and re-named) Affordability Connectivity Benefit that would provide a $30 per month voucher for eligible low-income families to use toward any internet service plan they choose.
The obvious caveat: it’s $20 less per month than what EBB is offering now and it relies on Congress’ willingness to continually fund the program, which, depending on which way the political wind is blowing and who is in office, it’s subject to be cut.
Another caveat: not only is this a big giveaway that will funnel millions of federal dollars into the coffers of the big monopoly providers, the EBB program is administered in such a way that makes it hard for new, small, and even mid-sized Internet Service Providers to participate or, in some cases, discourages them from making the effort. For a discussion on how poorly the EBB is administered see this episode of Connect This!
Not only does the bill not prioritize funding for municipal, cooperative, and non-profit networks, it exclusively prioritizes funding for “unserved” areas defined as areas that do not have access to a paltry 25/3 megabits per second service. It further defines “unserved service projects” as projects serving areas where not less than 80 percent of locations in the project area are unserved. (This is better than requiring 100 percent, which often makes projects unviable.)
Secondarily, the grant money can be used to fund projects in “underserved” areas, which is defined as areas that do not have access to broadband service delivering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps. The bill further stipulates that in order to use the grant money for “underserved” areas, the State has to certify that all “unserved” locations have already been served.
This is bad because there aren’t many places outside of the most rural regions of the country that do not have access to 25/3 broadband service. And considering that large swaths of suburban and metropolitan areas would not qualify as “underserved” (lacking access to service offering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps) because they are “served” by high-cost, underperforming monopoly providers, this bill can be seen as a way to ensure expanded broadband access is confined to mostly rural America, while all but ignoring the broadband challenges in non-rural parts of the country, which is where most Americans live.
In other words, there’s nothing in this bill that includes the more robust elements contained in the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act or what President Joe Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan called for: namely, a bill that addresses the affordability gap and also encourages competition in a way that favors community-centric solutions as an alternative to the corporate shareholder-focused monopoly model. There is very little in this that will help fix broken broadband markets.
As noted by Issie Lapowsky, Protocol’s chief correspondent, the bill “does away with some parts of President Biden’s initial proposal that were the least popular with the telecom industry, including more-aggressive requirements regarding network speed and provisions that would have targeted grant funding to municipal, government-run networks.”
She notes how the bill is “good news” for the telecom giants, quoting Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan and current policy adviser to New Street Research, on why Comcast is a big winner.
“They (Comcast) have a head start because they invested 10 years ago in trying to accomplish the same goal, which is trying to get the currently unconnected people online,” Levin said, citing Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials program. “By virtue of the staff, the relationships, the understanding of messaging and the importance of digital literacy, Comcast has skated to where the puck is going.”
The bill requires the FCC to come up with rules within 2 years “to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, taking into account the issues of technical and economic feasibility presented by that objective, including (1) preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin and (2) identifying necessary steps for the [FCC] to take to eliminate such discrimination.”
This is an ugly part of the bill, not because on the surface it will force the FCC to wrestle with “digital redlining,” but because it essentially means the Senate is kicking the can down the road two years to study something we already know is happening right now.
To further bring home the point, a recent study by the Brookings Institution, shows that people who live in cities are three times more likely to lack access to broadband than their counterparts in rural America. As the study notes:
“The digital gap between urban and rural parts of the country tends to garner the most attention. However, our analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data tells another story: The majority of digitally disconnected households live in metropolitan areas, and the gaps are especially large when comparing neighborhoods within the same place. Effectively, some residents live in digital poverty even as their neighbors thrive.
“Until metropolitan leaders and their state and federal partners can address the situation, we can expect a kind of digital segregation to persist across metropolitan America.”
All in all, while the bill does nothing to promote competition in a broken market dominated by monopoly providers, it’s not all bad. Or as Karl Bode wrote for Vice, “while the plan should help the up to 42 million Americans without broadband, it falls short in upending the rampant regional monopolization that has left 83 million Americans stuck with just one ISP.”
Or as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Ernesto Falcon tweeted in his bottom-line take-away, after the Senate vote:
The Senate broadband provisions will be dependent on states being smart about future needs. California, with its universal fiber focus, can do very well.
States that restrict public broadband infrastructure & hand it to cable, those are going to be failures (so don’t do that).
— Ernesto Falcon (@EFFFalcon) August 10, 2021
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 11, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.
Bryan Darr: An Order of Fiber, Please, with Wireless on the Side
Wireless is essential because for truly remote properties, a physical connection may never be practical.
Over the next five to ten years we will see an explosion of projects bringing high-speed connectivity to underserved communities in the United States. Although fiber infrastructure rightly gets most of the attention and funding, wireless networks should also be part of this planning process. Wireless networks can deploy faster, serve remote locations more economically, and provide some capabilities that fixed networks can’t. Failure to consider the comprehensive needs of the mobile broadband environment will hobble efforts in the next phase of this technology revolution.
How we got here
As federal broadband infrastructure funding is ramping up, state broadband offices are preparing to prove their need for a larger slice of the pie. This is detailed in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, which is a part of the infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) passed into law in the fall of 2021. Although every state is guaranteed $100 million, that leaves about $37 billion yet to be divided up.
Assuredly, this pie won’t be sliced into equal portions across states, tribal areas, and U.S. territories. Differences in population, geographic area, household density, and income levels will impact the funding eligibility of individual jurisdictions. Preparedness to verify underserved areas will ensure that state and local governments can maximize their chances of securing adequate funding. The first step is to identify these communities and estimate the cost of covering each household. With a desire to help as many people as possible, there will be a tendency to prioritize areas with the lowest cost per connection.
State governments have been focused primarily on fiber access. However, as big a pot of money as the IIJA may be, it won’t be big enough to connect every household to fiber. Continued supply chain issues, inflation, and labor shortages (particularly with needed expertise) will expand the cost of projects in the coming years.
The race to compete for these billions of dollars has had a very uneven start. Some state broadband offices are fully staffed, have hired consultants, have obtained and collected network performance data, and already have mapping projects launched. Other states are just now funding their broadband offices and beginning to hire their first employees. States that cannot successfully challenge both the mapping fabric (think number of service addresses) and confidently identify unserved households will be disappointed with the size of their slice.
The recipe may require adjustment
Recently, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called for the commission to reset its definition of broadband from 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed to 100 down and 20 up. Many would agree that a reset is long overdue. The IIJA legislation is already requiring that new infrastructure builds meet this criteria. We should all recognize that this metric reset could make millions of additional households eligible for funding. Some policy organizations, including the Fiber Broadband Association, are voicing their opinions that those numbers are already dated and that the new target will not be enough for future needs such as the much-anticipated metaverse.
The specific benefits of wireless
Wireless connectivity can be broken down into three basic types of last-mile providers:
- Cellular service providers, offering traditional mobile and new fixed wireless access services
- Wireless internet service providers (WISPs), offering fixed point-to-point service
- Satellite companies (more on them later)
Wi-Fi is also wireless, but provides a final hop for only the last few feet of a network connection.
Wireless is essential because there is broad recognition that for truly remote properties, a physical connection may never be practical. As subsidies flow, that fact may be applicable to fewer locations, but there is certainly a point of diminishing return. As state and federal officials plan their networks to connect as many communities as they can, they should be factoring in where the wireless networks need bolstering as well. This is applicable for both mobile and WISP infrastructure.
Additional wireless investment could serve multiple needs. Poor wireless coverage is a common complaint even in densely populated areas. If you spend any significant time in rural areas, you know that there are locations where service is so spotty that the local population knows when to not risk initiating a call. Even if you get a signal, throughput can vary greatly. Just because you can receive a text in a particular location doesn’t mean you can download a video. These rural areas have weak wireless signals for the same reason that they lack good terrestrial broadband — the population density does not provide enough return on the investment.
Fiber is still a necessary ingredient
Today’s higher data usage demands the capacity that fiber provides. Mobile service providers are not going to build a new 5G tower without access to fiber backhaul. Sites that require long, dedicated fiber deployments can cost far more and lead to an unreasonable dent in the CapEx budget.
As new middle-mile networks are being designed, network planners should consider where wireless networks are weak and new towers are needed for improvement. Strategically adding splice points in poor service areas can significantly lower the barrier to attracting new wireless infrastructure. A lower cost of deployment will be a big incentive to wireless networks to bring improved service to rural communities.
We all depend on wireless services
Mobile connectivity has moved beyond a luxury and has become an expectation. Even if we could practically and affordably connect every house with fiber, there are many reasons to include wireless in your overall design plans.
- Public safety – If you have ever had a flat tire or an overheated radiator, you know how important wireless coverage can be. Just try calling a rescue service with no bars. FirstNet wants to improve coverage as well, and incentivising new towers can provide a big assist.
- Precision agriculture – Fiber-to-the-home can connect the farm house, the barn, and even the chicken houses, but it won’t connect the tractor or the combine. Livestock now wear devices that monitor animal well-being. Wireless is the only way to keep the whole farm connected and competitive in a global marketplace.
- Healthcare – Devices to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and more are revolutionizing patient care. Many can now automatically notify a care facility when a patient is in distress. Mobile networks keep these devices connected if the patient’s residence lacks fixed broadband and when they are away from the home.
- Economic development – Picking the best location for a new factory, business park, or neighborhood is about more than adequate roads and water resources. Good connectivity for both wireless and fixed telecom services has become a standard amenity for site selection.
- 5G, part 1 – These new networks are quickly overlaying the 4G footprint. You don’t have to experience the lightning speeds of inner city millimeter wave service to see huge improvements in network performance. Wireless carriers are now introducing Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) to directly compete with traditional fixed providers. Competition means pressure in the market to keep services more affordable.
- 5G, part 2 – Just over the horizon is the Rural 5G Fund, established by the FCC in October 2020. Over $9 billion dollars will be made available to improve 5G coverage. However, the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents many rural mobile service providers, estimates the need at well over $30 billion. Without some advance planning and dialogue with the wireless providers in your state, you may see very little of those investments.
WISPs have brought first-time service to millions
According to WISPA (the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association), over 2,800 WISPs are now serving more than seven million customers in portions of all 50 states, bringing internet to many rural households that had previously relied on aging satellite services. Although some subscribers are seeing median speeds below the current 25/3 broadband definition, new technologies are improving user experiences as equipment is modernized. Of course, better access to fiber is also needed to increase capacity and link to internet backbones.
All radio signals degrade with distance. Some of the largest WISPs cover sparsely populated regions, often with rugged terrain, making physical household connections particularly expensive to build. Commonly, customers who experience slower than advertised speeds are living at the practical edge of these coverage areas. Providing fiber to just a handful of locations can attract new towers that could substantially expand network services. This would also save much of the cost compared to direct-to-home routes and reduce the time needed for these subscribers to see significant improvements.
The IIJA is written to be technology-neutral, but some broadband officials seem to be paying little attention to proven solutions that could have immediate impact. Even if the eventual goal is to offer direct-to-home fiber for everyone, we may go well beyond this decade without realizing that dream.
Aren’t satellites wireless, too?
Modern and improved satellite services are already fulfilling broadband needs for some households and businesses. Availability is limited to certain geographies but is expanding, and new competitors plan to enter the mix soon.
Throughput speeds and latency have improved dramatically, but waitlists are long, and initial equipment costs of more than $500 (that’s for do-it-yourself) and subscription fees of $100 or more per month will make this a difficult purchase decision for low-income households. There’s also limited capacity for any given geographic area, so even if there is satellite service available in your location, it may be that your neighbors have already maxed out the service and you will be waiting for additional capacity to be made available.
Without wireless, a broadband plan is just half-baked
We are many years away from realizing the full impact of the IIJA and the other recent funding sources that will deliver new fiber connections across the country. The FCC’s map is already delayed. There are early grumblings about uncertain challenge processes and many states are just now getting their planning efforts underway. The federal government has promised millions of Americans better broadband and they are expecting action soon, not in five to ten years.
Regulators and policymakers will ultimately be held accountable by voters and Congress for how the BEAD funds are spent. Two key metrics will matter most: the number of households gaining a new or improved connection and how quickly this progress is being made. Monitoring compliance will become more important as projects hit milestones and contractors get paid.
For some rural communities, wireless may be the best option right now and, perhaps, for the foreseeable future. Some households can already experience better service from their wireless provider than from DSL or satellite options. Reports are surfacing of DSL providers refusing to reconnect service to households where an interruption of service has occurred — whether for late payment or change of ownership — leaving families cut off from the digital economy.
Because satellite service is expensive and hard to acquire, wireless services are the only logical solution to get some rural households (particularly those in low-income brackets) connected before these communities wither past the point of no return. WISPs and mobile providers can fill some of this gap today and, if given the opportunity, will provide competitive options for families unhappy with their service. FWA from the traditional mobile operators is gaining public acceptance quickly in select markets and where signal levels are strong.
Think of anticipating wireless needs while planning fixed networks like an extension of a “dig once” policy. You don’t want to look back years from now and ask why wireless wasn’t considered in your planning process. Across the country, economic and community development departments spend millions of dollars every year to attract new citizens and businesses. Reliable mobile coverage is an amenity everyone – and every thing – wants.
Data from Ookla can highlight areas of need for both fixed and wireless networks. Leveraging coverage data to spotlight deficiencies can serve as an additional assessment in your middle-mile fiber planning, which can ultimately improve public safety, agricultural competitiveness, and overall quality of life.
Prepare for all the broadband needs ahead of you. It’s smart business. It’s smart government.
Bryan Darr is the Vice President of Smart Communities at Ookla. He coordinates Ookla’s outreach to local, state and federal governments and serves on CTIA’s Smart Cities Business & Technology Working Group. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
FCC Denies Funding for Two of the Biggest Winners of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Money
‘We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps,’ LTD said.
WASHINGTON, August 10, 2022 – LTD Broadband’s prolonged effort to get certification status in several states and Starlink’s still nascent and pricey satellite broadband project have proven enough for the Federal Communications Commission to deny them funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the agency announced Wednesday.
The reverse auction process for the $9.2-billion fund culminated in December 2020 to awards of $1.3 billion for LTD Broadband – the largest winner in the auction – and $885 million for SpaceX’s Starlink project. But since the winners were announced, a new-look commission emerged under the leadership of Jessica Rosenworcel to weed out projects that did not align with the goals of the program – including bids in areas with adequate coverage or areas that don’t need the services pitched.
In a decision on Wednesday, the commission said that the limited number of dollars available cannot go to support Starlink’s still developing technology. “Starlink’s technology has real promise,” Rosenworcel said in a press release. “But the question before us was whether to publicly subsidize its still developing technology for consumer broadband—which requires that users purchase a $600 dish—with nearly $900 million in universal service funds until 2032.”
For LTD, the commission ruled that it “failed to timely receive eligible telecommunications carrier status in seven states,” adding the “relatively small fixed wireless provider…was not reasonably capable of deploying a network of the scope, scale, and size required by LTD’s extensive winning bids.
“We must put scarce universal service dollars to their best possible use as we move into a digital future that demands ever more powerful and faster networks,” Rosenworcel said. “We cannot afford to subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements.”
In a statement to Broadband Breakfast, LTD CEO Corey Hauer said, “We are extremely disappointed in the FCC staff decision. I don’t believe the FCC fully appreciated the benefits LTD Broadband would bring to hundreds of thousands of rural Americans. We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps.”
In the same release on Wednesday, the FCC announced it has authorized $21 million in funding to three companies to deploy gigabit service to nearly 15,000 locations in Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. The commission has so far authorized more than $5 billion to bring fiber gigabit to over three million locations in 47 states, it said.
The FCC had provided winning bidders an opportunity last year to review the areas in which they won bids and to relinquish those areas they find are not in need of services. The aftermath included several defaults in areas, some of which were attributed to updated broadband maps from the commission. The commission said that it may waive penalties for the defaults, but last month proposed fines of $4.3 million against 73 RDOF applicants for violations related to those defaults.
FCC Should Not Increase Rural Program Obligations in Light of New Federal Funding: Meeting Notes
Opponents say increasing coverage and speed obligations of the ACAM program may be unnecessary with new federal broadband money.
WASHINGTON, August 4, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission should withhold expanding funding for a program of the Universal Service Fund because there may be support for broadband infrastructure from other federal funds and state activities, according to responses to the FCC proceeding on revising that program.
The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau is seeking comment on enhancing the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program – which funds build-outs to rural and high-cost areas by allowing carriers to recover costs from the USF – by proposing additional funding support in exchange for increasing provider obligations to expand broadband deployment locations at higher internet speeds. It would also use the new Broadband DATA Act maps – which are set to be released by the fall – to determine new deployment obligations.
The new obligations would require speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload to 90 percent and at least 25/3 Mbps to the remaining 10 percent of eligible census blocks. In 2019, the commission increased the speed obligation to 25/3, which made at least 106,000 additional rural homes and small businesses eligible for A-CAM funding.
But the proposal is facing some opposition. According to a meeting summary with a legal advisor in Commissioner Brendan Carr’s office published Tuesday, telecom company Windstream reiterated that Congress has created an unprecedented $42.5-billion opportunity to deploy broadband networks in rural areas through the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and corresponding state broadband programs.
Windstream stressed in the meeting the importance of studying the IIJA’s impact prior to increasing current obligations to fund broadband projects, which it said would impact the stability of the USF.
The FCC is currently studying the future of the USF, whose revenues are derived largely from dwindling voice service revenues. Windstream expressed its support of the commission acting under what Windstream views as the FCC’s authority to expand the USF contribution base to include broadband internet access services, which has been an issue of debate for some time and is being studied by the commission.
NCTA, the internet and television association, in a summary of a meeting held with the legal advisor to Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, added that rather than spend USF resources where they may not be necessary – and may even disrupt state activities already in progress – the commission should pause any new high-cost support through the A-CAM program.
The association added that the FCC should be skeptical of requests to increase support for ongoing maintenance and operations through A-CAM as alternative federal funding may eliminate the need for operational support in many areas.
Comments on the decision to revise A-CAM will be accepted through August 18.
The proposal follows a request in June by Siyeh Communications, which asked for a change in A-CAM because the program allegedly incorrectly determined certain areas to be ineligible by misidentifying those areas being served by an unsubsidized, unaffiliated carrier.
- FCC Points to Congress on USF, Texas Hires LightBox, Lit Communities Hires Lindsay Miller
- Bryan Darr: An Order of Fiber, Please, with Wireless on the Side
- Tech Policy Conference Panelists Tackle Challenges of Federal Privacy, Antitrust Laws
- Carr ‘Surprised’ by RDOF Denials, ‘New Normal’ on Supply Chain, $68M for Student Connectivity
- Appeals Court Affirms FCC’s Spectrum Authority, FTC Privacy Rulemaking, (Root) Beer and Broadband
- David Flower: 5G and Hyper-Personalization: Too Much of a Good Thing?
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